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Chelsea Hill, Queen’s University.
Cancel culture. It’s a buzzword that you have surely heard before and it can mean many things to many people. For that reason, forming a concrete stance on cancel culture is difficult.
Upon conducting some research on this topic, I was left with some lingering questions: what actually is cancel culture? Does it even exist? At least, does it exist in the way people purport it does?
For one, it tends to be blown out of proportion. Cancel culture rarely actually operates in the way its most outspoken critics think it does claim it does. When we think of cancel culture we tend to think of statements like this: “this guilty-until-proven-innocent cancel culture where everyone is condemned to death or to a lifetime of unemployment based on an accusation that’s 12 years old.”
But the consequences of cancel culture are not as harsh as people would like to pretend. Louis CK was ‘canceled’ after claiming to have masturbated in front of female comedians but then went on sell-out shows. Shane Gillis was fired from SNL after racist jokes surfaced but is still a touring comedian. R. Kelly’s music even saw an increase in streams after accounts of sexual assault. In fact, I was hard-pressed to find an example of someone who was ‘cancelled’ who has not received some sort of redemption in one way or another. It is rare that those who are canceled lose everything and are unable to find a platform somewhere else. However, this does mean cancel culture doesn’t exist altogether, but it certainly does not mean death.
An article by Colin Wright, a former academic at the University of Pennsylvania, claimed that cancel culture was very much real and that he could prove it because it happened to him. However, upon reviewing the article I struggle to agree with his arguments that he was in fact ‘cancelled’.
Over the course of Wright’s academic career, he published many articles including one titled The Dangers of Sex Denial supporting the willfully ignorant claim that “the denial [of biological sex] harms vulnerable groups, including women, gay men, lesbians, and, especially, gender non-conforming children”. Might I remind you that these arguments are typically used to deny trans identities, claiming that allowing people the autonomy to self-identify erases biological sex. Even though the majority of the trans activists do differentiate between sex and gender, and at large do not suggest that sex is non-existent, they only affirm that gender and sex are not synonymous. Wright complained about the backlash he received, including being called transphobic and getting complaints from faculty and students stating that his work “made them feel less comfortable” on campus.
However, in the end, he wasn’t even fired, he chose to leave his job. What Wright’s article made clear to me is that he wants to portray himself as the victim. People spook out against his beliefs, calling him transphobic; Honestly, reading the article I would call him transphobic too as he continuously made claims denying transgender identities. His ideas are not mere innocuous opinions. Not only have these opinions been refuted by renowned scientists, but they are also the cause of laws, policies, and violent attacks that have been detrimental to the safety and well-being of trans people.
Though he claims that he was cancelled, people have the right to not like him, to speak out against his beliefs, to not want to work with him or be affiliated with him. People have just as much of a right to challenge his beliefs, as he does to share them.
Speaking out against beliefs and actions that we do not believe in is not new. Marginalized populations face harassment and hate regularly, sometimes just for existing. For instance, people fighting for racial justice have received death threats, been bullied and killed for advocating for a more equitable system and this can be seen across the board with similar movements. MLK’s actions weren’t fashionable amongst mainstream society. At the time, 75% of Americans disagreed with him and he was murdered by one of them. The difference was he was actively fighting against an oppressive system and it seems Wright is working to maintain one.
Here lies the major problem with his argument that he was cancelled: it takes away from the problem, those who are actually the victims of systemic oppression, and centers those who are active and complicit in their oppression. Wright was not the victim he was the oppressor.
However, that is not to say that I agree with cancel culture in all its forms. For instance, during the summer of 2020, skits of Jimmy Kimmel dressed in black face and a song where he used the n-word were uncovered and calls for cancellation followed.
As a woman of colour, I wasn’t happy with what I saw but I wasn’t happy with calls for cancellation either. Especially when those who are calling out for cancelation are not actually the ones actively hurt by their actions and are just doing so to seem ‘woke’.
Also, I had to ask myself, is Wright still that same person today? Would he still do those kinds of things?, Though I don’t have access to his inner thoughts, I choose to believe that answer is no, and would take this belief with a grain of salt. Since if we are not accepting of growth, then what are we actually fighting for? Society is not going to change by kicking out everyone who has actually made a mistake and are willing to be better.
In general, cancel culture as a practice is hard to define because people use the term to refer to a variety of actions. Perhaps the greatest issue with cancel culture is that we use the term to refer to many different actions from harassment to accountability. As Hagi argues, the term cancel culture “oversimplifies. The term is used in so many contexts that it’s rendered meaningless and precludes a nuanced discussion of the specific harm done.” Cancel culture is not inherently good or bad because it can refer to actions of justified backlash and opposition, which allow marginalized communities to resist oppression and falsehoods or excessive harassment and bullying for well-meaning mistakes.
Colin Wright, for instance, used the term to flip the script, depicting himself as the victim after facing backlash. Yet, he still had a platform to share his views and the comment section was filled with people affirming his every word.
One key step is to distinguish between cancel culture and call-out culture and use them accordingly. As Tavangari explains, to call someone out “can serve as a catalyst for growth, but only if given the chance to re-engage in the conversation.” It is a way to educate those who have made a mistake by providing criticize can providing an opportunity to change. The cancel culture movement takes its roots in the black power movement of the ’60s gives marginalized people a voice with which to sway public sentiment. It involves the entire withdraw of support from a public figure.
Cancel culture can be an important way to hold those in power accountable in ways that they have never been before. There are people who I believe deserve to lose their platforms, namely, people who have done significant harm to communities that are often the victims of systemic oppression and refuse to change and acknowledge their mistakes. For instance, Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, perhaps two of the few people who have successfully been ‘cancelled’, rightfully deserve to be punished for the harm they have caused.
In my opinion, Jimmy Kimmel deserved to be called out for what he did because it was wrong, even though people at the time were not as outraged as they are today. However, recognizing and encouraging growth is essential if we actually want to bring about social change.
As Actress and Activist Jameela Jamil says: “If we ‘cancel’ people forever, even after they demonstrate immense change and remorse, we devalue progress.” We have to allow room for growth and encourage process because isn’t that the real goal? The world won’t change for the better if the people in the world do not.
Cobb, Jame C. “Even Though He Is Revered Today, MLK Was Widely Disliked by the American Public When He Was Killed.” Smithsonian Magazine 4 April 2018.
Hagi, Sarah. “Cancel Culture Is Not Real—At Least Not in the Way People Think.” Time 12 November 2019.
Howe, Bethany Grace. “Denying transgender identity has serious impact on mental health.” The Conversation 11 December 2018.
Romano, Ajo. “Why we can’t stop fighting about cancel culture.” Vox 25 August 2020.
Tavangari, Emma. Cancel Culture And Call Out Culture Are Not The Same. 27 July 2020. 29 January 2021.
Willis, Jackie. “Wayne Brady Weighs In on Jimmy Kimmel’s Blackface Controversy (Exclusive).” ET 24 June 2020.
Wright, Colin. “Think Cancel Culture Doesn’t Exist? My Own ‘Lived Experience’ Says Otherwise.” Quillette 30 July 2020.
Wu, Katherine J. Between the (Gender) Lines: the Science of Transgender Identity. 25 October 2016. 29 January 2021.